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The Storyteller’s Responsibility

December 4, 2007

Recently, there’s been talk of a new Knight Rider series. This is not the first, nor probably the last, old-school TV series to be re-booted, reimagined, or remade in the new millennium. On one of the many message boards I frequent, there was a recent discussion about the Knight Rider re-imagining, and re-imaginings in general.

Putting aside, for the moment, the fact that the “argument” at hand was pure idiocy — someone was insisting that the new KITT doesn’t look enough like the old KITT and therefore the new show was worthless and an insult to the fans, even though a) the KITT design is not endemic to the storyline and perfectly sensible to update to a newer model of car, or even a concept car, and b) the official new KITT design hasn’t been released, so the argument was actually regarding a fan rendering which, much like the person making the argument, has no grounding in reality — the point raised was interesting, especially given the side I found myself arguing.

The argument, at its core, was that re-imagined versions of a story are often so distantly related to the original concept that, with a few changes, it could have been its own, “original” concept, instead of “pissing on” the nostalgia and “alienating the fans of the original”. Ignoring, again, how ludicrous it is to imply that because KITT is not a 1982 TransAm nor does it (theoretically, mind) have a similar silhouette, the entire enterprise is a wash, we’ll go with another example that was brought up: the new Battlestar Galactica.

I do not watch Battlestar, so I can’t really talk too much about the story beyond my cursory knowledge of the basics. It’s not that I have anything against it, I just haven’t jumped in yet. And since the next season has been announced to be its last, I figure I might as well hold off until they wrap it up and hear from Ryan, who DOES watch it, whether the journey is worth it. But I don’t need to watch the new Battlestar (nBSG) to know that the argument that it has replaced the original series (oBSG) is, to use a word I can’t use on that particular board, utter horseshit. The original series is still there. You can still watch it, it hasn’t been changed or erased. The new series is something else. End of story.

To argue that the new series shouldn’t be named Battlestar Galactica if it’s not going to be the original series is also absurd. The BASIC story is the same, and that’s the story that they want to use as their foundation.

Before I get into that too much, though, I just want to point out a seeming contradiction in my thinking, which I realized during this argument; it was my determination to resolve the contradiction, either by forcing myself to accept that I can’t have it both ways and to drop one side of my contradictory argument, or by understanding how there was, in actual fact, no contradiction.

I often take filmmakers like George Lucas and the Wachowski Brothers to task for screwing up the story in their series. My first post in this string was a mini-essay on how Lucas had no right to change Star Wars the way he did, in terms of the originals, and I barely touched on how horribly he mangled the telling of the prequels AND cut the legs out of the originals in the process. It is his responsibility, I argued, to stay true to the zeitgeist and the cultural impact by allowing the story to be what it is, and what it has become.

But at the same time, I found myself arguing that the makers of the new Knight Rider, and nBSG, and all other series reboots, have no responsibility to the nostalgia of the original fans, particularly when said nostalgia is so blinkered that the smallest change might as well render the whole thing meaningless in their eyes.

So which is it? Does the storyteller have a responsibility to his audience and their nostalgia, especially when the story is an established part of the cultural fabric, or is it his open prerogative to create a new story at his whim, nostalgia and fan-loyalty be damned?

Well, I had to think about this pretty hard before I realized the truth of the matter: putting it that way, it’s a trick question, and a false dichotomy. Putting it that way, the answer is “neither”. The storyteller’s responsibility is not to his audience’s love of the minutae incidental to the telling of the story. Nor is it to his own whims in a given moment, to changing the story just because it’s in his power to change it.

The storyteller’s responsibility is to the story, to the world and the characters necessary to tell the story. Always, and only.

The storyteller’s only responsibility to the audience is to provide them with enough believable detail (take careful note that the word I used is quite intentionally not “realistic”, but “believable”) to accommodate the suspension of disbelief the audience will need to make. A greater suspension usually requires proportionately greater detail.

The storyteller’s only responsibility to himself is to make sure the story is told to his satisfaction. BUT, his satisfaction must at all times derive from a sense of the truth of the story, of the reason the story deserves to be told.

In “first-run” versions of the story, that means being true to the source. The Matrix sequels and Star Wars prequels fail because they were not true to the stories that they had begun to tell and which they were, ostensibly, continuing.

The Harry Potter stories deserve to be told in as faithful a way as possible, because they have never been brought to the screen and therefore the story has not yet been told in that medium.1

But, if a story must be RE-told, I would go so far as to say they had BETTER make some radical changes from the last time, to give it a new relevance and purpose. Otherwise why should you tell that story again?

For example, I’ve often thought of how cool it would be to make a new Wizard of Oz film, using the visual effects techniques unheard of 70 years ago. Think of the flying monkey effects! Think of the powers of the Witch of the West!

But then I think: why in the hell would I do such a thing? What could be added to The Wizard of Oz that wasn’t accomplished the first time, story-wise, to warrant using new techniques to tell the story?2 I could never answer that question, and always abandoned the notion.3

Why do a Battlestar Galactica today about the future that the 80s envisioned? We need a Battlestar Galactica about the future as it appears to us.4

Some stories have NOT been properly translated to the screen. The recent Beowulf is an example of a film that I think was worth making, even though it was not a reimagining. To the contrary, it was the first film to treat the material faithfully, directly. But still with a purpose, of telling the story and wrestling with the material in a new way. Instead of just telling the story of a man who kills monsters, it tells the story of a man who epitomizes the Neitzchian concept of a man who fights monsters becoming a monster himself, and tells us that the people we revere as heroes are still, in the end, human beings.

Beowulf has been told before, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the events of the story. But it is only Zemeckis’ version that has found a PURPOSE in re-telling the story, a truth that the events of the plot (altered somewhat from the ancient manuscript, arguably to their improvement) can help to express.

This isn’t to say that everything a storyteller writes or makes is going to be gold. I somehow doubt that Knight Rider is going to be brilliant, no matter what the car looks like. It’ll probably be silly fun and hopefully it’ll have the sense not to take itself too seriously. And the design of the car will undoubtedly be dictated less by nostalgia and more by whichever car company is the highest bidder for what is, ultimately, a weekly hour-long commercial for their product.5

But hey, it could be brilliant. It really could, and what will only emphasize its brilliance is that no one in the world will really expect it to be so.

Jaws was just supposed to be (and expected to be) a B-movie adaptation of a bestselling book. The ONLY reason they gave it to a relatively inexperienced director was because of its bestselling pedigree: there was no way he could screw it up too badly. What Spielberg delivered was an astonishing film capturing the reality of the human characters within the world of the story.

The PLOT was about a giant shark eating people, and there was plenty of that. But the STORY was about how different people deal with fear in different ways. Denial, horror, anger, helplessness, or a powerful resolution to set things right.6

As in real life, the heroes aren’t heroes to us because they killed the shark; they’re heroes to us because they even ATTEMPTED to kill the shark when they were positively scared to death.7 The fact that they succeed lets you leave the theatre elated, but you’re on their side and cheering them on well before that resolution comes.

A lesser filmmaker than Spielberg would have made a film about a shark killing people. No subtext, no real story. People die and then the shark dies the end. You can see many of these lesser films on the shelves of your local Blockbuster Video.8 I count the sequels to Jaws among these lesser films, where the monster shark becomes a gimmick for adrenaline and scares, but there’s no STORY being told.

Spielberg saw the opportunity to do more. He did more, and Jaws was a success that defined the term “blockbuster” and that the studios are still trying to replicate today.

No matter what the PLOT of your film is, the specific events of your film or your novel or short story or whatever, make sure that the events tell a STORY — a human story — worth the effort.

Fuck nostalgia, fuck expectations, and fuck you and your ego. None of that matters. What matters is: is it a story worth telling, about characters worth knowing, and are you doing it justice? The story is what matters, and the second you put it on paper or on a screen it doesn’t belong to you anymore, so you’d better get it told and then get the hell out of its way.

That’s your responsibility as a storyteller.

  1. To Rowling’s credit, and by contrast to The Dark Tower, she managed to stay completely true to her story and to her style, despite various changes in her life such has marriage, children, and becoming the richest woman in Europe.

  3. One could argue that a film could be made that skewed closer, plot-wise to the original short novel by L. Frank Baum, but ultimately that still doesn’t answer the question: what more is there to the story that was present in the novel — not the plot, but the story being told — which could warrant such an exercise? Having read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I can’t personally say there was anything that they really lost out on story-wise, even if plot-wise they left out the part about mice saving Dorothy from the poppies.

  5. It should be noted that, just because I couldn’t think of a worthwhile new way to tell the story, doesn’t mean such an endeavor was impossible. The Sci-Fi miniseries premiering this last weekend, Tin Man accomplished just that, taking the concepts presented in the original story, such as a man with no brain, and an evil witch, and re-seating it into a much different tapestry and interpretation of Oz mythology. Whether or not the re-imagining is to be judged “successful” is, I admit, purely subjective (I have the first episode TIVO’d but unwatched), but I think most viewers would rather see a “bold reimagining” of a well-known story, than a tepid rehashing of a story that was already told in cinematic form, completely and competently, almost a century ago. 

    To say nothing of “Wicked”, the best-selling book and its generally sold-out Broadway adaptation both. Author Gregory Maguire has built his career on re-imagining classic children’s stories, usually from the “villain’s” point of view.


  7. This gets into the theory of what sci-fi is all about in the first place, which is not to try to predict the future, but to extend the problems and fears of TODAY to their extremes, and wrestle with today by holding up a mirror we call “tomorrow”. But that’s a topic for a future post.

  9. And a sure-fire successful one, too; I don’t even know what it looks like but I’ll tell you right now, if I had the money, I’d fucking buy a KITT car at the drop of a hat. And I’m not even into cars. Slap those red running lights on the front of any shiny black car and I’m sold.

  11. Frank Darabont’s recently released film version of The Mist, which I also remember reading about on Coming Soon as much as a decade ago, happens to tell the same story. Although it takes the decidedly more cynical view that fear drives the majority of people to madness and violence. Not a feel-good movie, that one.

  13. Yes, even Quint. The reason the fisherman is so angry and hateful, especially towards the shark, is because he’s so terrified of its power, the way it can make him helpless and destroy him without fear or remorse of their own. He wants to destroy the shark so he can conquer this fear that rules his entire life. All of the characters have this kind of depth throughout. And this was supposed to be a low-budget schlock film. Is it any wonder Spielberg has the reputation — and the track record — he does? He refused to settle when anyone else would have. 

    Now try to read that kind of depth into the characters of one of the Resident Evil movies. I dare you.


  15. I once decided, years back, that I wanted to have a “shark day” where I rent all of the non-Jaws shark movies in Blockbuster and watch them in a marathon. Since then I’ve had to amend the plan to being a “shark week”. There are so fucking many of these movies.

From → filmmaking, story, writing

  1. Rin permalink

    New Knight Rider series better not take is seriously…..

    That was half the fun!

  2. Master Darksol permalink

    New KITT is NOT a TransAm?

  3. Master Darksol permalink

    I don’t see the contradiction you speak of near the beginning, as far as your examples go. I think Lucas’s tinkering with his own storyline is not comparable to, to use your example, a re-imagining by different crew of a complete story told some years ago.

    Lucas modified his OWN story. He did not “boldly re-imagine” it. I almost would have preferred that he did. At least that way, the core storyline would remain intact, and we’d be provided with this alternate view. Sure the alternate would probably be crap, but the core would remain untouched.
    What he did was modify and edit the content in his CURRENT story, so that it fits with his new vision of how the story should go. And even with all his retcons, the story as a whole ended up fragmented, and leaving the audience with an uncertainty regarding what direction they were being taken (and not in the good “you’ll never guess how this ends” way).

    Due to this, I could completely understand one’s viewpoint that Lucas’s responsibility was to the cultural impact (in essence, the fans) and that nBSG or the new Knight Rider should NOT hold such responsibilities. Their situations are completely different than Lucas’ or the Wachowski Brothers. The difference in your stance on their responsibility mirrors the difference in their situations. Changing/editing mid-story vs Re-imagining of complete story.

  4. Ryan permalink

    Your example of the Wizard of Oz amuses me because this very evening is night two of Tin Man… Sci-Fi’s bold re-imagining of the classic story.

  5. Dorkman permalink

    Read the footnotes n00b!

    Also don’t delete that. We all should watch it and it’s being TIVO’d.

    Also also, glad to see you here.

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